WFTB Score: 19/20
The plot: In the San Fernando Valley, a dying man, his worried carer, his flaky wife and estranged son search for their own peace, with or without each other. Elsewhere, a quiz show host hides truths about his own health whilst hosting a show featuring an uncomfortable child genius, and the host’s daughter hides her coke habit from a potential date. Finally, a former child star goes through hell as he tries to make some sense of his failed adult life.
When lonesome cop Jim Kurrier (John C. Reilly) finds two dead bodies in a closet, it’s just the start of an extraordinary day for the residents of The Valley. Later in the day, Jim visits the apartment of nervous cocaine addict Claudia (Melora Walters) and, despite her poor coffee-making and social skills, gets a date. Earlier, Claudia had bawled her TV quiz master father Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) out of the place, refusing to listen to his explanation that he’s dying of cancer. Jimmy hosts the show but his ill-health becomes apparent, as does the stress shown by bright but cowed young contestant Stanley (Jeremy Blackman). Elsewhere in the valley, former prodigy ‘Quiz Kid’ Donnie Smith (William H Macy) flounders as he tries to express his love for a bartender, while those surrounding the sickbed of TV producer Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) find themselves at a loss to help him. Second wife Linda (Julianne Moore) numbs her own pain with drugs, so it’s left to nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to sit with Earl as he pours his heart out. His dying wish is to see his son Frank (Tom Cruise), a no-holds barred guru in the art of seducing women; but, as reporter Gwenovier (April Grace) is determined to discover, Frank is living a lie by claiming his mother is still alive and his father already dead. In fact, Earl abandoned Frank to look after his dying mother – and it would take some kind of miracle to get the son to his hated father’s bedside.
There’s a particular joy in reviewing films about which I know very little beforehand. Before watching Magnolia, I was aware that Tom Cruise played some sort of self-help guru, that something happened in an ambulance, and that it lasted about three hours, a cause for some apprehension given that I’d found Boogie Nights tedious back in 1996. And the beginnings were inauspicious: I was frustrated by director Paul Thomas Anderson’s penchant for running dialogue under songs in some of the film’s early moments, and despite the amusing preface about coincidences, the intersections between the characters didn’t seem particularly significant.
As Magnolia progressed, however, I found my qualms completely overwhelmed by the incredible lives unfolding in front of me. Anderson’s characters are absolutely fascinating. It’s almost unfair to assess them individually, but (for example) Frank Mackey is extraordinary, a damaged study in profound misogyny and utter self-denial who could fill a three-hour film on his own. Or take Linda, a relatively minor character in terms of screen time but with an entire lifetime of guilt crammed into her scenes. And what scenes! Linda at the pharmacy, Frank’s vile seminar and his interview meltdown, Donnie’s unhappy encounter with Henry Gibson’s acid queen at Brad’s bar, Earl’s deathbed confessions (of which more later); there are so many memorable moments in Magnolia that the film flies by, even at over three hours. The genius of the writing is not only in giving characters fascinating lives, but in keeping the viewer guessing with red herrings and false starts: is Jim a nice guy or a weirdo? Will the loss of his gun prove fatal to someone? Is Phil taking advantage of Earl? Is Claudia simply an unstable coke casualty? Plus everything is filmed in a fluid but unfussy style, neither piling on drama for its own sake nor exaggerating for comic effect (Anderson could have gone to town with dogs on methadone!); and the easy, instinctive timing with which each storyline comes and goes is brilliant.
Of course, the characters rely completely on actors bringing them to life, and Magnolia hits the jackpot in this respect too. Again, it seems pointless to run through them all, but Cruise is surely as good as he’ll ever be, whilst Robards (in his last feature), Moore, Macy and Reilly are all stunningly good. I should also mention Jeremy Blackman, whose Stanley is always sympathetic despite being a child genius, the neglected paycheck for a self-regarding father (Michael Bowen). The ensemble cast understand that although they have moments to shine individually, their greatest achievement is in contributing to the power of the whole, adding up to a rich, complex meditation on life and death, families and relationships.
A film as beautifully put together as Magnolia doesn’t have problems – it has discussion points. The first is the point at which, following an absolutely heart-breaking confessional speech from Robards, the gorgeous Aimee Mann song Wise Up (originally destined for Jerry Maguire) begins. Extraordinarily, each of our protagonists (including Robards) sings along with the song, in a manner similar to Romance and Cigarettes. It should be a disaster, a horrible misstep which ruins the moment Earl’s soliloquy has just created, but somehow it doesn’t; instead, it’s a wonderfully-judged pullback from the intensity of each character’s pain, reminding us that we’re watching a film whilst perfectly maintaining the desolate, plaintive mood.
The second discussion point arrives at the film’s climax. I won’t reveal it here for potential newcomers, but if you’ve seen Magnolia you’ll know precisely what I’m talking about. Unlike the singing, the highly implausible turn of events pushed me too far and took me out of the drama. I realise that Anderson sets up the scenario early on with his amusing story of the scuba diver, but I’m still not convinced it’s the right surprise at the right time; for me, it’s Anderson getting that tiny bit too clever, with or without the religious interpretations it offers up. Nevertheless, it’s another amazing scene that by no means ruins the film; and the final few seconds redeem many sins, not that the film has many to redeem.
I try not to read other reviews before I write my own, and I don’t know what others have said about Magnolia. I imagine a common complaint might be “Why should we care for these people, all of whom seem at least partially privileged and the authors of their own misery?” The answer is twofold: firstly, the acting is that good; secondly, Magnolia’s point is that whatever our position in life, whatever our successes and failures, we screw up our relationships with our children at our peril. I do know that Magnolia doesn’t seem to be widely loved: it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture in 1999 and, though I know such things are skewed towards more recent films, it’s outside the IMDB Top 250 [at the time of writing this review], whereas adequate (but no more than adequate) films such as the Star Trek remake and Ratatouille make it in. I can honestly find no rational explanation for either absence, but it’s no reflection on the most emotionally engaging and, to put it simply, best film I have seen in a long time. Please, find it. Watch it. Discuss it. And most of all, love it.